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January 27, 2011

Heave-Ho — Vermont Frost Heaves Fold

10ad8643fce1472e1d37b4d65a5e1324.400 If you picked up the latest issue of Seven Days yesterday or read it online, you'll know that we wrote about a man from Calais named Dick Rouelle who is the ultimate Vermont Frost Heaves superfan. Over the years, Rouelle has let nothing stand in his way of catching every Heaves game, both home and away. Not only is Rouelle a devotee of the Barre-based minor league basketball franchise, but he's also one of the founders of Go Heaves, Inc., the fan nonprofit that owns the team. Or rather, more correctly, owned the team. 

On Wednesday, the nonprofit announced that the Heaves were folding. If you read the rosy, heartening piece we wrote, you might be scratching your head, wondering how that could be. By all accounts, the team was financially solvent enough to scrape by and the fans weren't going to let the team go under.

So what happened? How did the team collapse so soon after their season began in early January?

The answer, of course, is all about money. Or more specifically, the lack of it.

Late last week, the Heaves left Vermont for a road trip to Oklahoma and Kentucky. Before they departed, general manager Don Mandelkorn reached out to the Premier Basketball League for financial assistance with some of the Heaves' bigger-ticket expenses. The owners of the league's other seven teams were happy to help out, says Severko Hrywnak, founder and chair of the PBL.

When the Heaves returned from their two-game road trip, things began to unravel, Mandelkorn says. After taking another look at the team's balance sheet on Monday, the PBL reneged its offer of financial support. "It was too much to ask the other owners," Hrywnak says. "[The Heaves] didn't have the funds to finish out the season."

Mandelkorn wouldn't get into the specifics of the team's financial meltdown or talk about its discussions with the league regarding its insolvency. But, he laments, "things came to a head and there was no way to fix it."   

"The reason we folded is we've got some debts that we need to take care of and revenue wasn't coming in at the pace we needed," Mandelkorn says.  

The team's revenue slump was largely due to poor attendance. Revenue projections for the Heaves were based on average attendance of 1200 people per game. Recently, Mandelkorn says, the team was only bringing in about 800 people per game. Despite the best efforts of the fans behind Go Heaves, Inc., it was increasingly difficult to get people to part with their money for a basketball game, especially in Barre, a town that has been struggling since long before the recession.

Joe Salerno, the Heaves' newly out-of-work coach, admits to being caught off guard by the news that the team was folding. He's not involved in the day-to-day management of the franchise, so the announcement was a surprise, he says.

Salerno's 10 players took the news better than he anticipated.  The men were "extremely appreciative" for the fans who rallied around them and for the Go Heaves organization that kept them in Vermont.

The Heaves' demise means that the PBL has had to reshuffle its schedule for the season. It also means that the team's players are currently scrambling for work. The PBL will be able to absorb about half of the players through a special draft held today, says Salerno. The rest of the players will return home to wait out the season until the next league begins (most players compete in a number of leagues throughout the year).

For Salerno, the future is up  in the air — he's still trying to process the franchise's downfall. Before the season began, Salerno was courted by other teams in the PBL, but decided to stay in Vermont and renew his contract with the Heaves. That was in part because of the assurances given by Go Heaves, Inc., that the team would be fine, that Salerno wouldn't need to worry about his job. 

"My only disappointment is that I was told at the beginning of the season that this team folding would not be an option," he says. "Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way."   

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